WAS GANDHI A TANTRIC, OR WAS HIS ASHRAM
JUST A MASSAGE PARLOR?
It is now widely known that Gandhi shared his bed with young women as part of his experiments in brahmacharya, a Sanskrit word usually translated as “celibacy,” but generally understood as the ultimate state of yogic self-control. Gandhi believed that Indian ascetics who sought refuge in forests and mountains were cowards, and he was convinced that the only way to conquer sexual desire was to face the temptation head-on with a naked female in his bed.
I take Gandhi at his word that he did not have carnal relations with these women—his sleeping quarters were open to all to observe—so he was not among the “left-handed” Tantrics who engage in ritual sex with their yoginis. Tantrics believe that, under the guidance of a guru and tightly controlled parameters, people can gain spiritual liberation by means of sexual intercourse. Gandhi was not a “right-handed” Tantric either, because this school views the male-female dynamic in symbolic terms only and proscribes intimate contact with women.
For Gandhi the virtues of patience, self-control, and courage were absolutely essential to defeat the temptation to retaliate and respond with violence. Gandhi made it clear that each of these virtues were found most often in women. Gandhi once said that he wanted to convert the woman=s capacity for “self-sacrifice and suffering into shakti-power.” Shakti, the power of the Hindu Goddess, is at the center of Tantric ritual and worship.
The women around Gandhi were amazed how comfortable they felt in his presence. His orphaned grandniece Manu considered Gandhi as her new mother, and she simply could not understand all the controversy surrounding their sleeping together. The fact that women felt no unease in his presence was proof to Gandhi that he was approaching perfection as a brahmachari.
Of the 16 women closely associated with Gandhi, nine were said to have slept in his bed. Most accounts of Gandhi’s sexual experiments focus on those with Manu in 1946-47. Although he conceded at the time that it “may be a delusion and a snare,” he was still confident that sleeping with Manu was a “bold and original experiment,” one that required a “practiced brahmachari” such as he was, and a woman such as Manu who was free from passion. Confessing as she might not even have done with her own mother, Manu told Gandhi that she had not ever experienced sexual desire.
Presumably because of these ideal conditions, Gandhi predicted that the “heat would be great.” It is not clear whether Gandhi was speaking of yogic heat or the heat of the negative reactions that he anticipated. One has to admire Manu because it was she, not Gandhi, who suggested that they not sleep together any longer. One cannot admire Gandhi when he said that the experiments ceased because of Manu’s “inexperience,” not because of any failing on his part.
Gandhi’s “sacred” experiments actually started at his Sevagram ashram as early as 1938, when his wife Kasturba was still alive. Sushila Nayar not only slept with him there, but also gave him regular massages in front of visitors. Sushila explains: “Long before Manu came into the picture, I used to sleep with him just as I would with my mother. . . . In the early days there was no question of calling this a brahmacharya experiment. It was just part of a nature cure.” The fact that Gandhi changed the justification for these experiments after closer public scrutiny suggests that his motivation for these actions may not have been as pure as he wanted people to assume.
In an extremely candid confession, Gandhi admits that at Sevagram he had made a grave mistake: “I feel my action was impelled by vanity and jealousy. If my experiment was dangerous, I should not have undertaken it. . . . My experiment was a violation of the establishment norms of brahmacharya.” Gandhi, however, did not maintain his resolve, because shortly thereafter intimate contact with women of the ashram resumed.
There is evidence that these activities were having a deleterious effect on the women’s mental health. There was intense competition among the women for Gandhi’s attention, and several visitors attested to definite signs of psychological turmoil among them. Swami Ananda and Kedar Nath, two visitors with substantial spiritual credentials, queried Gandhi as follows: “Why do we find so much disquiet and unhappiness around you. Why are your companions emotionally unhinged?”
In conclusion, if we can call Gandhi a Tantric, then it is a very unique nonritualistic, nonesoteric practice combing aspects of both left- and right-handed Tantric schools. It also must be said, no matter how much we want to hold Gandhi in the highest esteem, that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that Gandhi was inconsistent in his justifications for his sexual experiments and not completely sincere in carrying them out.
This would then lead one to question whether these experiments were a spiritual necessity or simply a personal indulgence and abuse of power. If the goal of the true Tantric is to transform sexual desire into something sacred, then personally I am less and less certain that Gandhi achieved this goal.
Nick Gier taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. The scholarly version can be read at www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/gandtantric.htm. Gier’s book The Virtue of Non-Violence: from Gautama to Gandhi is now available in paperback from SUNY Press, and parts of it can be read at www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/vnv.htm.